Written by Celeste Lomeli
Over the course of this semester, I had the privilege to intern with the nation’s oldest distributor of certified organic fruits and vegetables based in San Francisco, Veritable Vegetable (VV). VV distributes high quality organic produce to independent cooperatives, retailers, restaurants, schools, corporate campuses, and wholesalers. I worked under the Marketing Communications Manager at the company and assisted with tasks that dealt with promotion of the business and sales of products and services. My time at VV however was not limited to these tasks as I also had the opportunity to sit it on company meetings, participate in tours and volunteer events, and gain exposure to the many different departments of the company. While working at the company, I had the chance to learn more about the distribution side of the food system. The work that VV partakes in can be seen as the invisible efforts that take place in the food system. These distribution labors are hardly ever directly seen, making the efforts less thought of by customers as they purchase and consume produce. Interning at VV helped me better understand and appreciate the food distribution sector of the food system.
Taking the lead in a business sector can be extremely difficult, especially in a frequently disregarded field such as the environmental field. VV is an exemplary sustainable organization using the power of business to solve social and environmental challenges, led and mainly operated by women. Sitting in on the company’s annual B Corp application process, I witnessed firsthand the additional work the company must complete in order to be approved for certification, beginning with paying to apply. VV had to answer questions about monitoring emissions, waste, and sustainability practices followed by supporting documentation. I observed and was educated about the company’s sustainable practices, including a green fleet, zero waste policy, energy efficiency, and use of sustainable materials. The green fleet is unique to VV and entails hybrid trucks that operate near zero emissions. This proves the guarantee the company has to sustainable practices because of the amount of time and money that was used in adopting a green fleet, all for the better of the environment. The green fleet and 99% waste diversion exhibit a strong commitment to the reduction of energy and waste. Any food that is deemed unsellable is donated to schools, hospitals, churches, and more to achieve zero food waste and aid the surrounding communities. It was inspiring to work at a company that goes above and beyond to pay for extra recycling of waste as well as educating all employees, myself included, on food safety and waste management.
Distribution and the Food System
Although the business does not work directly with consumers, they do participate in accessibility of healthy fresh produce for communities. I had never actually thought about the distribution sector of the food system because it is so simple to buy produce at any nearby store and not question where the food directly came from. Imagine a world without food distributors. The shelves of stores would be empty, leaving it up to the consumer to travel long distances to farms located in rural areas to purchase food. Farmers are saved a great amount of money and time because of distributors such as VV. If this company did not exist, the work of a farmer would be made more difficult than it already is by requiring the farmers to travel out to set up shop and promote their own produce. Distribution is extremely critical because companies such as VV serve as direct links for farmers to produce stores. With VV as the middleman, farmers are saved this extra effort and time. The credibility of the organic distributor serves to the organic farmers advantage when VV promotes the farm on their website and to other customers such as wholesalers and restaurants because it results in continued business for the farms. Farmers are often underpaid and underappreciated for their efforts. VV’s intensive communication with their farmers and support of equal pay for all farmers is unique to encounter. While working on a grower acreage project for VV, I learned that the business supports numerous small and mid-sized organic farmers that many stores would be reluctant to rely on and work with. The business contributes to the formation of an equitable food system by supporting organic farmers and maximizing their return on produce, increasing access to fresh produce, and fostering a fair workplace for employees. A sustainable food system cannot exist without the presence of sustainable farms, so sustainable farmers and businesses such as VV are especially valuable in altering the modern food system.
Tours and Volunteering with VV
I had the opportunity to join VV for a tour of Rainbow Grocery, located in the San Francisco’s Mission District. Rainbow Grocery is a worker-owned cooperative that serves as a local, independent grocery that offers an extensive selection of organic and local produce, while assisting in supplying the community with valuable knowledge about health and sustainability. Before visiting Rainbow, I had never heard of or visited worker-owned food cooperatives. My exposure to grocery stores consisted of larger supermarket chains such as Safeway that dedicated small sections in the store to healthier options like organic. To visit a grocery store like Rainbow was a brand new experience to me. I was surprised that there was such stores that committed solely to the sale of healthful organic and local produce, moreover with vast variety among produce. It was refreshing to shop at a market in which organic produce is the default and not concern oneself with examining labels for chemicals. It is independent stores like Rainbow that share VV’s vision of a sustainable food system that the company primarily seeks to work directly with. Volunteering at garden nurseries with VV and other B Corporations served as great inspiration to pursue a profession in the environmental field. Gardening and being surrounded by people who truly care about environmental matters made me appreciate my time at VV even more.
Price of Organic Produce
Before working at VV, I really grappled with the price of organic produce. Many disadvantaged communities in the world face food insecurity, but purchasing organic produce may not be realistic options due to the price. Interning at VV taught me the truth behind these high prices. Helping consumers understand and accept the higher price of organic produce is an important challenge the business continuously faces. So why does organic cost more? Through the creation of promotional flyers, I learned that organic farmers do not receive federal subsidies thus making the price of produce reflect the true cost of growing and bringing food to the market. Most farms may be small local for profit yield focused farms and as a result do not earn huge profits compared to large scale conventional farms. Furthermore, organic farming may be more labor intensive due to farming practices such as compost application. Clearly, the price of organic is fair when considering the farmer’s efforts and equity on his/her part in the food system, which is done so by VV. So why would a company sell organic produce? VV specializes in organic because it sustains biodiversity and natural resources on the farm, producing a variety of safe food, long-term sustainability, and increased yields overtime. Working at VV assisted in clearing my confliction and confusion on organic produce as well as the critical need for sustainable businesses to achieve a sustainable food system with environmental and human health at the forefront.